Over the past several days there have been ample signs that changes in how Russia is governed are indeed in the works. Whether these will be meaningful and lasting, or simply cosmetic, is still an open question. What is not in question, as "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted, is that any changes will be done "manually" -- meaning that the process will be stage managed by upper echelons of the ruling elite, which has no intention of losing control of the thaw it has initiated.
Right Cause, the Kremlin's attempt to create a housebroken center-right party, held its congress in Moscow on Saturday and elected Mikhail Prokhorov as its leader. He called for the direct election of governors, mayors, judges, and police chiefs. He called for a return of single-mandate districts in elections to the State Duma. He called for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev to be freed.
And he directly challenged the ruling United Russia party's chokehold on power:
The congress was broadcast on state television. Two days later, President Dmitry Medvedev invited Prokhorov for a chat at his residence in the Moscow suburb of Gorki.
Here is what Medvedev had to say to Prokhorov, according to the Kremlin's official website:
Some of your ideas are more radical in nature and require more reflection, but one thing is clear, and that is that centralized power in any country, even in as complex a federal state as Russia, cannot continue forever. There was a time when we had to 'tighten the screws' as it were, in order to get our institutions working and establish a state administration system capable of carrying out the instructions given, because the system had deteriorated during the 1990s, unfortunately. But of course, it's one thing to 'tighten the screws', and another thing to turn them too far.
We need to look now at how to make our system ¬ the power system, and the electoral system ¬ less bureaucratic, freer, and less centralized at the national level and in the regions, and this includes looking at new ideas too, ideas that haven't been discussed yet. All of the political parties should take part in this work, and I hope that Right Cause will get involved too.
As for the ideas you proposed, I will think about them.
If this all seems a bit orchestrated, well that's because it is. It is the opening sequence in a stage-managed -- manually-controlled -- move by the Russian elite toward managed pluralism.
And the motivation? In an interview with "The New York Times" published today, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin spelled it all out pretty clearly.
Speaking to the Times' (Pulitzer Prize winning) Moscow bureau chief Ellen Barry, Kudrin explained that oil production will not increase in Russia over the next 10 years as old wells will run dry and newly developed ones are yet to go online:
Kudrin is a fairly reliable barometer of Russia's political winds. Ideologically close to Medvedev's technocratic approach, but personally close to Putin (he is rumored to be the only official allowed to use the familiar "ty" with Putin in private), he is in a unique position to understand both men's thinking.
Asked if there was consensus between Medvedev and Putin on reform, Kudrin's response was telling.
"They understand it a little bit differently," Kudrin said. "As a whole, yes, they understand it. Probably they are ready -- I think they are ready for this work. I know this from our discussions. This is why, in principle, Russia will improve its investment climate and carry out reforms under either leader."
Kudrin, who has outlasted five prime ministers over his eleven year stint as finance minister, has long been locked in a struggle for influence with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who opposes diversifying the economy away from energy and opening up the political system.
Both have Putin's ear and both have sought to influence his thinking. Kudrin's comments and the events of the past few weeks suggest that he is winning -- at least for now.
-- Brian Whitmore